Editor’s note: Edward J. Blum is a historian of race and religion at San Diego State University. Paul Harvey is a history professor at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs and runs the blog Religion in AmericanHistory. They co-authored “The Color of Christ: The Son of God and the Saga of Race in America.”
By Edward J. Blum and Paul Harvey, Special to CNN
Did you ever hear the one about Jesus being Mexican? Well, he was bilingual; he was constantly harassed by the government; and his first name was Jesus.
Or, perhaps Jesus was Irish? He loved a good story; he never kept a steady job; and his last request was for a drink.
Or maybe it’s possible that Jesus was Californian? He never cut his hair; he was always walking around barefoot; and he started a new religion.
You may not have heard these Jesus jokes, but you’ve heard others. They represent a comedic trend that has animated the United States since the 1970s. More and more comedy gimmicks hit on Jesus, his ethnicity and his relationship to politics. Laughing with (and at) the Lord is now fodder for major motion pictures, barroom comedy tours, graphic novels, t-shirts and bumper stickers.
How is it that a figure sacred to so many Americans has become the punch line of so many jokes? And why is it acceptable to poke fun at Jesus when other sacred figures are deemed off limits or there is hell to pay for mocking them?
The explanations are as numerous as the laughs.
Immigration shifts from the 1960s changed the ethnic and religious faces of the country so no tradition dominates today. The Christian right made such a moral spectacle of itself that it practically begged to be mocked. The emergence of “spiritual, but not religious” sensibilities left many Americans willing to denounce or laugh about traditional faith. The public rise of agnosticism, atheism, and secularism led to aggressive mockery as a form of persuasion.
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If we pause to consider why we’re laughing, we find that the comic bits delve into some of our thorniest and unresolved problems. The jokes reveal much more about us than they do Jesus. They speak to how our society has changed, how it hasn’t, and what we’re obsessed with.
The first public jokes about Jesus were heard in the 1970s. There had been religious jokes before this, but none about Jesus had become widely popular because organized Christianity held such authority. As the economic recession and problems of urban decay collided with civil rights exhaustion and new immigration, however, some Jesus jokes emerged.
Archie Bunker on “All in the Family” was the white racist and misogynist you loved to hate and hated to love. On one occasion, his son-in-law challenged Bunker’s rampant anti-Semitism with the claim, "Jesus was Jewish." Archie shot back immediately: "Only on his mother's side."
The “All in the Family” spin off “Good Times” featured a black family that lives in an inner-city housing project, probably Chicago's infamous Cabrini Green. On the show's second episode, the oldest son J. J. astounded everyone by painting Jesus as black. The younger son loves it, and says he learned all about Christ’s blackness from the local Nation of Islam.
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As the family debates whether this black Jesus should be hung on the wall in place of their white Jesus, they “miraculously” receive $140 from the Internal Revenue Service. Feeling blessed, the family placed the painting on its living room wall, and the elated J. J. shouted his tagline, "Dyno-mite!”
From the 1980s to the present, the number of prominent Jesus jokes has multiplied like loaves and fishes:
• In “Talladega Nights,” Ricky Bobby and his family debated which Jesus to pray to (“baby Jesus in golden fleece diapers,” “grown-up Jesus,” “ninja Jesus”). Their overall hope is that Jesus will help them continue their extravagant lifestyle.
• “South Park” featured Jesus as a weak-kneed host of a local talk show who boxes the devil.
• “Family Guy” had Jesus perform magic tricks that wowed his ancient audience.
• “The Colbert Report” placed a gun in Christ’s hand and had him defend conservatives against the liberal “War on Easter.”
• “Saturday Night Live” let Jesus chastise Tim Tebow for using the Lord’s name in vain and ended the bit by declaring that the Mormons have it right.
One unforgettable scene in the rather forgettable recent film “21 Jump Street” may explain why Jesus has become such a joke.
Before Jonah Hill’s character returns to high school as an undercover cop, he prays to a small, crucified “Korean Jesus.” Down on his knees, he says: “Hey Korean Jesus, I don’t know if you only cater to Korean Christians or if you even exist, no offense. I’m just really freaked out about going back to high school. It was just so f***ing hard the first time. … I just really don’t want to f*** this up. Sorry for swearing so much. The end? I don’t really know how to end the prayer.”
The hilarity of the moment only makes sense in our time. Hill's character is unchurched and agnostic, but wants spiritual power to guide him. We can laugh at how agnosticism and being “spiritual, but not religious,” leave him uncertain of what to say, how to say it, and even how to end.
We can also laugh at how ethnic factors color his approach. By wondering if Korean Jesus cares only about Korean problems, Hill pokes fun at the issue which was made a media spectacle in 2008, when the Rev. Jeremiah Wright could be heard preaching that “Jesus was a poor black man” as part of his support for Barack Obama. What good is a God who only cares for those who look like him?
The Jesus jokes not only reveal how tangled our religious, racial, economic and political positions have become, but also how many outlets there are for the jokes. In these tense times, when presidential hopefuls point fingers at one another and families unfriend one another over political and cultural differences, laughing may be one way to talk about the problems without killing one another.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Edward J. Blum and Paul Harvey.
Freud summarized: Humor is making the sacred profane and the profane sacred. This being the case, Jesus is an easy target. I think that people look at some of the ways in which Christians ignore facts and scientific evidence in favor of a contradictory belief (a.k.a. faith) and come to the conclusion that the whole Jesus thing is at best a little suspect. When people stop taking you seriously, jokes will be sure to follow.
Jesus can take an insult, while other religious figures can't.
robert – since we have never seen an actual reaction from any deity regarding insults, i would say that it could only be the followers who get irate.
It's time to quit with the Jesus jokes. The democrats are more fun to make jokes about.
I love how bitter you repubs get after you lose an election.
@ Huebert I did not loose an election. I am not a politician...and you are still the joke.
Another stupid git reveals himself. It's "LOSE," you fvcktard.
Now you are just pettifogging.
Myto is so dumb he couldn't even get it right when Huebert handed it to him. What a bloomin' bozo.
Russian judge awards Huebert a "10" for use of "pettifogging."
New from Applebee's.... Bloomin Bozos! Guaranteed to put Outback right out of business!
@ tom tom..... I'll give you 8.5 points for the use of the word"fvcktard"
You aren't qualified to award points, Myto.
I am with you!
Jesus is as real as Harry Potter. In fact Harry has 7 books written about him so he must be even more real than Jesus.
Yeah, and each one of them has 50 residents total.
@ tom tom. You poor child. You havn't learned to count. There are classes you can take to improve such skills.
Those residents DON'T count, Myto. See Electoral College. And you can't spell. See the post above, darlin'.
You guys are so easy! The democrats don't like jokes about them......but they are the punch line.
Where was the punch line, Myto? I must have missed it. Oh, wait, you thought you were funny, didn't you? Well, you are, but not the way you imagine.
We like a good joke. Why don't you tell one?
One day God was talking to Satin Peter about where he should go on his vacation.
Peter: Well how about Pluto? It's calm and isolated and it has some of the best skiing in the universe.
God: I haven't really enjoyed skiing since I had that bad fall on Io. I sprained my ankle and it just never healed right.
P: Well, what about Mercury? It has Killer beaches.
G: Very funny, you know I burn. I'd come back to heaven looking like a cooked lobster.
P: Well there is always earth. It's got beaches and skiing, and if you get tired of that there is always Paris of Vegas.
G: No way am I ever going back to earth. Last time I was there I slept with this Jewish girl and the people down there STILL haven't stopped talking about it.
Saint, Satin, intresting anagram. Hard to tell one from other in reality.
Dyslexia strikes again.
"Saint, Satin, intresting [sic] anagram"
Hmmm. "A smooth fabric, as of silk or rayon, woven with a glossy face and a dull back" is related to a "holy" person?
I guess you could have holey satin?
What did Jesus say to the Democrat? .......Nothing.... He wouldn't understand anyway.
As opposed to Jesus trying to talk to a Republican, but being ignored?
making it a political issue? how hip and edgy
It might be a little funny if, you know, Romney had actually won, or even came close to winning. Now, it's just sad.
What did Jesus say to the Christians?
Nothing, dead guys can't talk.
Here's the punchline: 332 electoral votes said Jesus!
Looks like Washington DC has P*$$3d off the religious right.....or should I say the democrat-socialists have. Now you my come to know what wrath the Christians can serve up. Don't worry about Islam. They are on the list as well.
myto: bring your wrath on....
I'm not the Christian..... but you are the problem they are going to solve.
Looks more like Washington DC has abandoned the religious right. They just aren't influential enough any more to be worth the effort.
Yah, Myto, I'm sure everyone's shaking in their shoes. Weren't the Repubs going to show Obama the door? Big threats? More like big yawn.
Oh.... was that a threat?
Yeah, you have to be more dramatic than that. This is your moment, the stage is yours. Wow us.
@ dam I don't need to WOW anyone. That is the job of a liberal gay movie star. That is what you people like isn't it?
So you concede, then, Myto? Give up, do you? Good.
Again, myto....they should bring it on
Jesus loves me, but I make him wear a condom.
I'm so bad for laughing at that.
So called Atheists? Looks like the only book poor old Henry has ever read is the good old buybull...a dictionary would give a proper definition of the word Atheist but expecting someone as brain dead as Henry to pick one up is like asking a newborn to comprehend Henry's imaginary friend god-it is not going to happen.
As for evolution-facts and evidence are frightening and we understand this but at least they are based in reality. Henry needs to locate his cave and go back to it...stop using all the amenities that good Atheists gave him!
oops that was meant as a direct reply to Henry but as can be the norm, the reply link failed
Let's see, why has Jesus Christ, the purported savior of Christianity become the butt of jokes? Oh, imaginary characters do that all of the time. God often appear in jokes, as does St. Peter. When something is shown without question to be no more important than a child's imaginary friend, it's open for anything. That's the problem with JC. We get hisi followers insisting that JC wants this and says that, and all of them disagree with the next. Add to that the utter failure of ever single prediction of his return and it does get pretty darn funny that adults believe in such nonsense.
Yes, we all floss before bed. I wouldn't say I like doing it, it's not exactly a fun thing, but we always do it and we teach our kids to always do it because it's good for our teeth. My kids know that before they leave the bathroom after brushing teeth, they better have flossed, or they will be sent right back until they do. Just don't allow any acceptions, if you say "well, I'm really tired, so maybe this once I wont", you will end up thinking that every night.
I've got to admit that many so-called atheists, are not atheists at all, but they are the dumbed-down end result of the teaching of evolution in Public Schools or temples of disinformation.
Consequently, Americans have degenerated into a bunch of politically correct idiots, having not a shred of common sense whatsoever. Americans can’t have the power, and the wisdom of God since they kicked Him out sixty years ago, they can only have the same simple mindlessness of the Amoeba, which consists of a mass of protoplasm resembling its contemporary offsprings, the American people.
The whole world knows that America is a country made up mostly of idiots, beginning with the idiots at the bottom, and going up, up, and up, to the very top.
There are idiots everywhere, from the idiots attending mega-churches of doom to the idiots teaching in schools colleges and universities, to the idiots of the mainstream news media, to the political idiot in Washington DC.
America went from the home of the free and the brave, to the home of the enslaved dumbed-down idiots lacking the common sense that God gave geese.
thankfully we have you to show us the way henry.
what an idiot.
And your proof for your, or any, god is?
Henry that has got to be the stupidest post ever, so you just prove you're an idiot so you might want to stop hanging out with the geese. ;-)
Wow, a Christain who is sure that atheists aren't "really" atheists. Hilarious, Henry. I am impressed, with such supposed psychic powers, you should go on the road. Need a manager? Or of course, you probably have no psychic powers and are just lying, trying to make yourself feel better.
I do love your attack on evolutionary theory too. Alas, Henry, you are a hypocrite since you depend on the science that shows evolutionary theory is the best answer to the evidence. However, if you don't want to dare touch such stuff, I do advise you to stop using modern medicine, eating modern foods, drivign your car, using your computer, etc. But I know you are too much of a coward and hypocrite to actually do what you claim to believe. It's also a great thing to see you even dissing your fellow Christians. It's always wonderful to see yet another "OneTrueChristian" who has no more evidence that his narrow ignorant views are any more correct than the next bible thumper.
You didn't get the email that Leave it to Beaver was just a TV show?
Oooooo mega-churches of doom!! *shiver*
teaching of evolution in Public Schools or temples of disinformation.
LOL!!! Such good comedy. Yes of course, we wouldn't want our schools to teach our kids anything factual, now would we?
Henry seems to have some personal issues
Want to hear the funniest joke? Atheists on a belief blog.
Aw, Liam. You have to try that old saw that atheists shouldn't ever ever talk about religion. Poor thing. Sorry, it doesn't work that way. Atheists don't have to talk about religion but many of us do since we see the harm religion causes. We have parents killing their children thanks to religion. We have wars thanks to religion. We have people in this country who are sure that those "other" Christians aren't "real" Christians and who want to take their rights away from them. We see the hypocrisy of the religious and we call out your lies and nonsense. I've waited for years for the religious to show me the evidence that their claims are true. And here we are 20+ years since I ceased being a Presbyterian and there is still no evidence that your any other religion is true. No second coming that is predicted like clockwork and fails. No miracles that happen, nothing at all.
The bigger joke is that people question why atheists are on a belief blog. We believe that you're all mistaken. What's so hard to understand about that?
What's funny is that you are so infatuated with something you don't believe in.
Critical thinking, please....this is a belief blog, not just a religious belief blog, right? Athiesm is a belief, if you will, it just isn't a religion
Correction,.... atheism is a LACK OF BELIEF.......
"Yo Mohammed so stupid, I told him to makeup his mind and he put lipstick on his forehead.
Yo Mohammed so ugly cartoonists are afraid to draw him."
In Urdu, the official language of Pakistan:
"یو اتنے بیوکوف محمد، میں اسے اس کے ذہن اور دل و دماغ کی بناوٹ میں بتایا اور انہوں نے اس کے ماتھی پر لپسٹک ڈال.
اے محمد تو بدسورت cartoonists اس کو اپنی طرف متوجہ کرنے سے ڈرتے ہیں. "
"يو محمد الغباء، وقلت له لماكياج رأيه وانه وضع أحمر الشفاه على جبهته.
يو محمد قبيحة حتى رسامي الكاريكاتير يخافون من يوجه له ".
Dreamer's faux poetic wisdom reminds me of Eddie Murphy's Tyrone Green...
Lets face it Christianity is a cult and a few are enjoying, and Islam nowadays is worst religion.
You better watch out,
You better not cry.
You better not pout,
I'm telling you why.
Jesus Christ is coming to town.
End of the world, the bomb has come
Let Earth receive her doom
let ewvery single reprobate
and building crumble too, all over me and you
all over, all over your fat mama too :)
Brother will kill brother
Spilling blood across the land
Killing for religion
Is something I don't understand
Fools like me that cross the sea
And come to foreign lands
Ask the sheep for their beliefs
Do you kill on god's command?
The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.